SIP 8.1 Teaching First-Generation Students

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

In the 2017-2018 school year, 48% of MSU Denver students identified as the first person in their family to go to college. That means that approximately one out of two students in your classes are navigating a complex and often confusing system without much prior knowledge or awareness of the conventions of higher education. MSU Denver defines first-generation students as those who have not had either parent receive a four-year college degree.

First-gen students come from many different backgrounds and may have varying levels of support and involvement from their families and communities. Unlike students whose parents are college graduates, first-gen students may not be aware of all that college campuses can offer. From declaring a major and understanding what it means to drop a course, to seeing an academic advisor and learning about study abroad opportunities, supporting first-gen students with the “extracurricular” aspects of college life is essential for their success, and can lead to a higher retention rate for this population.

Take a SIP of this: Teaching First-Generation Students

Here are some ideas to consider when working with first-gen students:

1. Reconsider what you assume your students know about college. Be aware that your class may be the first time a student has heard the phrases “syllabus” or “office hours.” Take time to go over aspects of your syllabus that may seem self-evident, such as what office hours are for. If you use Blackboard, show students the various links and how to access them. A few minutes of extra time on the front end of your course can help to create a solid foundation in the class and the learning community you are working to create.

2. Explain your teaching approaches and what students can expect from you. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching offers a three-tiered transparent approach to working with first-gen students: assigning the task and explaining what you want them to do, show purpose by sharing why you are asking them to do this, and highlight the criteria by which they will be evaluated.

3. Challenge the deficit framework that is often used to describe first-gen students. Many first-gen students come into our institution having been told they won’t be successful because of who they are or where they come from. When we describe first-gen students as “at-risk” or tell them that first-gen students struggle in their transition to campus, we emphasize their shortcomings rather than celebrate their unique perspective and strengths. Instead, consider ways to bring their stories and cultural experiences into the classroom. Dr. Tara Yosso’s work on cultural capital  offers ways to consider learning from the perspectives that are not often considered in the academy.

4. Be versed in the campus resources that support first-gen students. Normalize asking for help and the use of support strategies and services available for students. Encourage them to visit the Writing Center,  the Tutoring Center, and the Auraria Library.  If your class schedule allows, consider a visit to these offices. Know that there are many student services and connection opportunities for students in offices such as the Center for Equity and Student Achievement,  which hosts workshops for first-gen students, peer mentoring support in Roadways, and chances to get involved on campus through Student Activities.

5. First-gen students are often balancing competing priorities. Like so many Roadrunners, first-gen students are attending school while working and managing additional priorities. However, many first-gen students are also dealing with an internal questioning of their own existence on campus, what is often referred to as imposter syndrome.  They are unsure of who to ask for help, and sometimes, may not even be aware of what questions to ask. Taking additional time to show support after class or during office hours can mean a world of difference in the experience of a first-gen student.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Teaching First-Generation Students

1. Consider attending a Roadrunners First Training,  put on by the Center for Equity and Student Achievement. Roadrunners First is a training for faculty and staff designed to bring awareness to this invisible identity and is offered several times each semester. The training can also be brought to individual departments.

2. Were you a first-gen college student? Many of your colleagues are! The “I’m First-Gen Too” campaign,  launched by the Marketing and Communications Department, is working to increase the visibility of our first-gen faculty and staff. Stop by the office in SSB 430 to pick up a t-shirt and button.

3. California State University Fullerton offers some great strategies for teaching first-gen students. 4. NASPA’s Center for First-Generation Student Success offers many resources and scholarship on working with first-gen students.

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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1 comment

  1. Nice information. Thank you

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